GHETTO BALLET follows the inter-linked stories of a number of students in a groundbreaking program called DANCE FOR ALL.
The raison d’etre of the program- founded by Philip Boyd and his late wife Phyllis Spira – is to give disadvantaged kids in the townships the opportunity to study ballet and, if they are lucky, find a way out by joining a professional ballet company
We wanted to showcase this process in all its glory and sadness; the competition is fierce and the slots are few – so even if someone wins a coveted place, many more are bound to be disappointed.
We did not want to make this another ‘salvation through Art’ film. We knew that any success for one dancer would be bittersweet for others and we did not want to shrink from portraying that reality.
Filming over a number of months with a small intimate crew we followed students as they battled the odds and their demons to try and stick with the program.
It is routinely expected that young men coming of age in the townships prove their manhood by getting a girl pregnant and while they may have the best of intentions in so doing, the reality is that rarely can the young couple support themselves let alone a baby.
Simbahle, who is one of the most vocal members of the class, exhorts her colleagues not to go this route and to keep focused on the program. Meanwhile she must try and convince her mother to let her continue to dance and try to shed the extra pounds that are hurting her chances of becoming a ballerina.
Everything is leading to the auditions at the end of the semester. One of the students gets pre-emptively picked for the Capetown City Ballet and Simbahle does her audition only to learn she was passed over in favor of another student.
The townships are a notorious no-go zone for media and often police. Winning the trust and co-operation of citizens is a long process for which there can be no short cuts. Director / Producer Jeremy Simmons immersed himself in the locale. Rather than travel with a large crew he often would shoot alone to win trust, to capture intimate moments (in spite of the fact that he was in an incredibly dangerous place and putting himself at considerable risk).
We also wanted to contrast the gritty poverty with the breathtaking beauty of the dancers when they leave their homes behind and take to the stage. We filmed a number of performances and capture the way their grace transcends their circumstances.
Editing and music were used to help communicate the contrast and give the audience viewing the film a powerful emotional charge.
DANCE FOR ALL is not only a brave program that offers some students the equivalent of a golden ticket, it is also vital to the reconstruction work so critical in South Africa. There is so much damage to be undone and healing to be done, but this program takes a giant step in bridging the impossible divide.
The disparity between rich and poor, white and black still remains shocking in South Africa. And it is clear that a divided society is a dysfunctional society. And these aren’t just local problems of no concern to us. Living in an increasingly global world it is the responsibility of all democracies to support each other.
For every single kid who becomes a ballerina and wows audiences in New York there are hundreds of thousands left behind without the opportunity to develop their potential.
Perhaps there is no greater testament to the film’s success that after it aired on HBO, the Atlanta Ballet Company called the producers. They were calling because they want to offer Simbahle a place in their program.
Simbahle in all her wildest dreams never thought that she would travel to America, let alone continue to study ballet – the love of her life. After the disappointment of not getting a place she had hung up her ballet shoes and become pregnant. She truly thought her dancing days were over.